US Defense Department report: The changing mission confronting Iran in Syria and Iraq?

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

The latest Lead Inspector General (Lead IG) quarterly report on the status of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) includes 105 mentions of “Iran.” It covers the period of July to September. Iran was mentioned many times in the June report as well, 118 times exactly.

So, what’s new in Syria?

“This quarter, National Security Adviser John Bolton stated that that U.S. troops would not leave Syria as long as Iranian troops and Iranian proxy militias remained outside of Iran.” The US is committed to defeating ISIS, but the section on Syria policy noted that there is now more to it. “The DoD told the DoD OIG that sustained U.S. presence to defeat the remnants of ISIS and stabilize liberated territory gave the United States “leverage” and the time and space to influence a political resolution to the war and pursue diplomatic efforts to remove Iran from Syria.”

Besides the comments about Syria, in Iraq “The United States temporarily suspended operations at the U.S. Consulate in Basrah as Iran increased threats against U.S. personnel. Street protests had turned violent as well.” The report mentions that tensions with Iran were present at the Tanf garrison in Syria. “However, several Iranian-backed militias also operate in the area, and their presence creates the potential for violence with U.S. troops and U.S.-backed forces. ” The garrison also restricts Iran’s movement. Votel said the Iran actions nearby are “provocative.”

Iran hasn’t done much against the Americans. “The DoD reported to the DoD OIG that while Iran and Iranian-backed militias may present a threat to U.S. and Coalition forces in Syria, neither Iran nor Iranian-backed militias had hindered counter-ISIS operations.” There was no evidence of attacks, but “For more on Iran’s activities in Syria and in support of the Assad regime, see the classified appendix.”

The Mission in Syria expands

The report admits that the mission expands. “These policy goals include removing Iran and Iranian proxies from the country, influencing the outcome of the Syrian civil war now in its 8th year, and stabilizing areas of northeast Syria liberated from ISIS.” Robert Karem, then-Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, said the US will “disaggregate” U.S. policy objectives regarding Iran and the civil war from military activities in Syria.  A new term, “ancillary benefit” is used to describe the deterring of Iran. But the report wonders what legal basis there is for troops in Syria, given that they operate  to combat those who “planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.” Instead the US now talks about “residual benefits.”

In for the long term

“However, by linking the U.S. troop presence to Iran’s presence and to the resolution of the Syrian civil war, these officials raise questions about when the U.S. troop presence will end,” the report notes. Elections happened in Iraq in May, the report notes “the Shia Fateh (Conquest) coalition headed by pro-Iran Badr Organization leader Hadi al Ameri,” came in second.

The PMU, still bad

“The PMF includes several large, influential Shia militias aligned with Iran, and the head of the Popular Mobilization Committee has close ties to Iran” Also their “continued willingness to act independently of the ISF—increases Iran’s influence in Iraq.”

Iranian Proxies in Iraq Increase their Threatening Posture Toward U.S. Personnel According to the DoD, approximately 100 to 150 Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps— Quds Forces (IRGC-Quds Force) and Iranian Ministry of Intelligence personnel were deployed in Iraq supporting Iranian-aligned Shia militia groups this quarter. According to the DoD, Iranian proxies were likely responsible for two attacks targeting U.S. facilities in Iraq this quarter: mortar attacks that targeted the Green Zone and landed near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and rocket attacks that targeted the Basrah Airport, near the U.S. Consulate General. The United States condemned Iran for the attacks, and warned that Iran would be held responsible for attacks by its proxies on American personnel and facilities. On September 29, Secretary of State Pompeo ordered the temporary departure of all personnel from the Consulate in Basrah in response to Iranian threats and the overall security environment. A temporary suspension of operations of the Consulate followed. According to the DoD, Iranian proxies continued threat messaging against the U.S. presence in Iraq and working to gain access to strategic locations for targeting and surveillance. The DoD also reported that Iran has continued to provide significant support to armed groups in Iraq, including missiles and rockets that are transported through border crossing points.120 Other support included combat intelligence training, munitions, and Iranian military grade hardware such as drone surveillance operations. Iranian-backed groups have also engaged in running illegal checkpoints, smuggling, drug and oil trafficking, bribery, and extortion, with uncontrolled Iranian proxy activity in Basrah and Anbar provinces serving as examples for the lawlessness of proxy groups inside Iraq. The DoD reported to the DoD OIG that if left unchecked, Iranian-sponsored harassment of U.S. forces could increase, and Iranian influence operations could increase as they vie for influence in the new government. For more on Iranian activity in Iraq, see the classified appendix.

The appendix notes “Iranian Proxies in Iraq Pose an Increased Threat to U.S. Personnel.”

Mohammed Halbusi, supported by Iran?

The report noted that Halbus’s “Election as Speaker with the support of the Iranian-aligned Bina bloc.” But on the other hand Barham Salih “Has strong ties to the United States, having represented the PUK in Washington, and Iran.”

The article notes that “Demonstrators set fire to the Iranian consulate.”

The Consulate in Basra

“Secretary of State Pompeo ordered the departure of U.S. diplomatic officials and staff from the U.S. Consulate in Basrah on September 28, following rocket attacks directed at the Consulate. Secretary Pompeo blamed Iran for the emergency evacuation, citing ongoing destabilization efforts by members of Iran’s IRGC that threatened the lives of U.S. diplomats. Secretary Pompeo stated that the Consulate would be moved to an appropriate temporary location.”

Christian groups blocked

A short “Christian civil society groups similarly continued to report that security forces, particularly Iranian-aligned Shia PMF units, blocked Christian IDPs from returning to their homes.” This appears to refer to Nineveh areas near Mosul.

Countering Iran….in Iraq

“This quarter, the DoS submitted its FY 2018 Spend Plan to Congress, which includes its goals under OIR. Under Mission Goal #1, the DoS stated that the United States is committed to helping the Iraqi government defend itself against external threats, counter malign Iranian influence, and promote internal stability. To support this goal, the DoS will continue to rely on the following programs: Foreign Military Financing; International Military Education and Training; Export Control and Related Border Security Assistance; Antiterrorism Assistance; Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining and Related Programs (NADR); and the NADR Counterterrorism Partnership Fund.”

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